“All worthwhile writing… comes from an individual vision, privately pursued.”
Wendell Berry defined freedom as a kind of coherence with oneself. For Joni Mitchell, it is a creative luxury. For comedian Bill Hicks, it is a matter of affording people the right “to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.” But what does freedom mean, really — for a writer, for an artist, for a human being?
That’s what South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (November 20, 1923–July 13, 2014) explores in a 1976 essay titled “A Writer’s Freedom” from her altogether magnificent monograph Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954–2008 (public library).
What is a writer’s freedom?
To me it is his* right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society. If he is to work as well as he can, he must take, and be granted, freedom from the public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes.
All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it.
This act of truth-writing, however, has often landed writers on the wrong side of political favor — one need only look at the fate of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or Nabokov’s Lolitigation lament, or the travesty of censoring Maurice Sendak. After all, censorship exists, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, to “prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions” and yet progress itself is predicated on such challenging. Gordimer considers the necessity of this potential risk for the truth-seeking writer:
Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago…
In a sentiment that calls to mind George Orwell’s timeless admonition against the cowardice of self-censorship, Gordimer adds:
Through all these vicissitudes, real writers go on writing the truth as they see it. And they do not agree to censor themselves . . . You can burn the books, but the integrity of creative artists is not incarnate on paper any more than on canvas – it survives so long as the artist himself cannot be persuaded, cajoled or frightened into betraying it.
All this, hard though it is to live, is the part of the writer’s fight for freedom the world finds easiest to understand.
And yet, Gordimer argues, there is another kind of freedom at least as essential to the integrity of the writer and even more elusive:
That other, paradoxically wider, composite freedom — the freedom of his private view of life — may be threatened by the very awareness of what is expected of him. And often what is expected of him is conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition.
Echoing John Steinbeck’s conviction that the writer can’t “work for other people” and doesn’t “do good work with their ideas,” Gordimer adds:
There will be those who regard him as their mouthpiece; people whose ideals, as a human being, he shares, and whose cause, as a human being, is his own. They may be those whose suffering is his own. His identification with, admiration for, and loyalty to these set up a state of conflict within him. His integrity as a human being demands the sacrifice of everything to the struggle put up on the side of free men. His integrity as a writer goes the moment he begins to write what he ought to write.
This integrity, Gordimer points out, isn’t only a matter of voicing dissenting opinions — rather, it is as necessary when it comes to agendas and viewpoints with which the writer agrees:
The fact is, even on the side of the angels, a writer has to reserve the right to tell the truth as he sees it, in his own words, without being accused of letting the side down.
When a writer claims these kinds of freedom for himself, he begins to understand the real magnitude of his struggle.
That struggle is ultimately about discerning new directions for the world to move in, and then moving it toward them — because, as E.B. White remarked several years earlier, “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” Gordimer writes:
That rare marvel, an innovator, should be received with shock and excitement. And his impact may set off people in new directions of their own. But the next innovator rarely, I would almost say never, comes from his imitators, those who create a fashion in his image. Not all worthwhile writing is an innovation, but I believe it always comes from an individual vision, privately pursued. The pursuit may stem from a tradition, but a tradition implies a choice of influence, whereas a fashion makes the influence of the moment the only one for all who are contemporary to it.
Without freedom, she argues, that pursuit is impossible:
A writer needs all these kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society — any vision of a future society — that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.
Commitment and creative freedom become one.
Gordimer revisits the subject two decades later, in another essay from the collection titled “The Status of the Writer in the World Today.” In the interim between the two essays, three of her own books were banned by South Africa’s apartheid government. Exhorting us to recognize the role of the writer “as both praise-singer and social critic,” she writes:
What is status, to us [writers]? First — it never can go without saying — the primary status must be freedom of expression. That is the oxygen of our creativity. Without it, many talents on our continent have struggled for breath; some have choked; and some have been lost to us in that other climate, the thin air of exile.
Freedom to write. We have that status; and we are fully aware that it is one that we must be always alert to defend against all political rationalisations and pleas to doctor our search for the truth into something more palatable to those who make the compromises of power.
Quite apart from the supreme issue of human freedom, our claim to freedom to write has a significance, a benefit to society that only writers can give. Our books are necessary … they show both the writer and his or her people what they are.
Considering “the role of the writer as repository of a people’s ethos” as the ultimate measure of status — rather than “fame and glory, invitations to dine with government ministers” — she adds:
Freedom and its joys, and — to paraphrase Freud — freedom and its discontents, are the ethos of a people for its writers now.
Many more of Gordimer’s enduring and ennobling ideas on literature and life can be found in Telling Times. Complement this particular piece with Voltaire on censorship and comedian Bill Hicks on what freedom of speech really means.
* Gordimer is writing in 1976, when “he” was still being used as the appropriate universal pronoun. Her own legacy, of course, is part of the supreme cultural counterpoint of women’s voices that over the decades have dethroned the universal “he,” rendering it an incomplete and thus inappropriate representation of the human enterprise.